Ignoring tax cheats

September 27, 2011

By David Cay Johnston
The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Each year New York State lets real estate investors evade at least $200 million of taxes. In peak years the figure likely rises to $700 million, if known tax cheating in another state is any indication. Some of the investors who cheat New York State also cheat New York City out of at least $40 million annually.

Back in the 1990s Jerry Curnutt figured out how to finger such cheats when he was the top partnership specialist at the Internal Revenue Service. Curnutt’s computer sifted through tax returns until he learned how to separate thieves from honest taxpayers. The tax-evasion estimates of $200 million and $40 million are his.

Six New York state tax auditors took classes Curnutt taught in June 2000 and gave stellar evaluations. California’s top tax auditor praised Curnutt’s course as “effective, relevant and most importantly, appreciated and understood by our auditors.”

Why has nothing been done for more than 11 years to make the cheats in New York pay what the law requires?

New York state and city are strapped for cash, slashing services for the poor, disabled and elderly. With penalties of up to 50 percent plus interest at penalty rates, the state is easily due more than $5 billion from years still open to collection, I calculate.

Every state has similar issues, but New York matters most as the epicenter of highly leveraged real estate investment pools.

Curnutt found that real estate investment partnerships with depreciated properties often misreport gains when they sell. That such cheating is widespread screams about tax law enforcement looking the other way when those at the top steal. In contrast, New York State has a well-deserved reputation for going after people whose mistakes cost the state as little as three dollars.


Yet in letter after letter since 2001, New York state tax officials told Curnutt to go away, smugly insisting there were no untaxed millions.

As head of audits for New York State, Thomas Heinz wrote Curnutt in 2003 that the state was “not interested in pursuing you or any other consultant on the matter” of systematic cheating by real estate partnership investors. Months later Heinz wrote a second letter that made it clear he had not understood what Curnutt was proposing, while reiterating that there were no untaxed millions to be found.

A year ago Curnutt again was told to go away because there was no money going untaxed.

And yet in Pennsylvania, Curnutt’s research “resulted in the taxation of over $700 million in unreported income,” the Pennsylvania Revenue Department wrote in a letter to tax administrators across the country in reference to a single instance.

“Without his assistance, our staff would have spent numerous hours getting to the crux of the issues, in that especially complex case,” Pennsylvania tax authorities said.

Pennsylvania has relied on Curnutt since 2002, calculating that every dollar spent on his research and subsequent audits was worth $10 of tax.

So why are sightless sheriffs ignoring massive cheating by the most affluent among us?

The likely reason became clear nearly a decade ago when one Kentucky tax official told Curnutt that the governor’s office did not want his services because it would uncover tax cheating by influential citizens, meaning campaign donors.

It is time for New York’s three top state officials, all Democrats with higher ambitions, to do their duty, especially since the thieves are virtually certain to include some of their campaign contributors.


Governor Andrew Cuomo, who harbors ambitions to be president, made his name as a state attorney general who appeared to get tough with Wall Street. Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy rose from Rochester street cop to chief and would love to be governor. So would Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, elected in 2010 on a promise to be tough on white-collar crime.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, has a similar duty to go after tax cheats even if these should turn out to include some of his friends.

New York law gives authorities leverage aplenty. The mere threat of public exposure through civil lawsuits would prompt many to write checks. For repeat offenders, the threat of indictment for tax evasion would produce checks even faster. Faced with the prospect of civil or criminal charges, many in positions of public trust would be ruined if their names got out.

The general partners — those in charge in the partnerships Curnutt investigated — took calculated steps to cheat and the most serious offenders should face indictment and, upon conviction, years of prison time. But many limited partners may have assumed their K-1 tax statements were reliable. Innocent victims owe taxes and interest, but not penalties. Those with multiple untaxed gains are not innocents.

As lawmen Cuomo, Duffy and Schneiderman all understand leverage. They have enough to lift billions into the state treasury where it belongs just by indicating in letters that failure to pay will result in disclosure of names. Will they?

Until Cuomo, Duffy, Schneiderman and Bloomberg enforce the law, their official inaction lends credence to billionaire Leona Helmsley’s remark, quoted by her housekeeper, that “we don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes.”

This column will keep you posted on whether these officials act or not.


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And illegal.

A legal tax loop hole I have always been uncomfortable with is The Charity.

I think they should be “regulated” in some way, so as to go to Local Education etc, but “overseas aid” , so-called, should be funneled via a few clear organisations, such as Save for the Children. The donors could label their contributions to target specific causes.

Quasi-charities mean the Treasury gets less.

Posted by eachtohisown | Report as abusive

The US is not much different from Greece in terms of tax evasion, lying, and cheating. The difference is that America presents itself as being an “example” and beacon to the rest of the world, while in actuality is just as corrupt as some third world countries. I suspect that the rest of the world has always seen America for what it really is and that it is US citizens who have been brainwashed and manipulated into believing the farce. Maybe the scales are starting to fall from their eyes.

Posted by Greenspan2 | Report as abusive

If he was so smart, why didn’t he go to the press. which is more powerful than any other media ?

I find the very idea of americans adoring candidates who make more money in their campaigns disgusting, and that this should be banned.

Elected politicians favoring the ones who contributed more and pardoning them at the end of their term..you call this democracy ??

Well if this was a more educated and less bible-oriented country I think this would not have happened.

Posted by roja | Report as abusive

Unortunately Mr. Heinz i s not competent nor qualified to opine about tac cheating. He is and was and will always be an auditor who through the tactic of being a yes man achieved the poisiton he is now in. He is rigid, unimaginative and does not know how to arrive at a resolution of disputes. As the Frm. Dep. Comm. and Counsel to T&F I alwasy felt that the biggest impediment to collecting money for the State of NY was the Audit Division. When I started in the Dept. in 1995 there were almost 9000 cases waiting to be tried. When I left 4 yrs. later we had less than a thousand. In addition the case load was down to under a thousand. This all despite theAudit Divisions obfuscation and obstruction. When you have an Agency where the auditors control settlements, no settlements will be ever had. As I was told at a Conference of NYS Tax Auditors, (where I was booed) the auditors considered their cases their babies. ufortunately the baibies were also thrown out with the “bathwater”.

Posted by SUT | Report as abusive

Mr. Johnston – as someone who has been there at Tax & Finance, the problem lies with the way DTF views tax fraud: as a line item on the budget.

As an example, let’s take income tax and the Earned Income Tax credit. Tax auditors will be assigned to look for a particular kind of known fraud for the EITC and will continue looking for such fraud until they find enough of it to reach a budgeted target amount in that fraud. Then that’s it – they stop looking for it. They are then reassigned to look for the next type of fraud and do so once again until they hit that targeted amount. Rinse and repeat this process again and again.

Even if it seems pretty clear that there is far more fraud to be found, DTF simply moves the auditors on to the next target. NYS and DTF do not view recovered fraud as incoming revenue – simply a budgeted expense, and that mentality is exactly the problem.

These policies were set in place by elected officials and their appointees set in place to run the show at DTF and are longstanding. Additionally, DTF simply does not have the human resources necessary to continue looking after the goal is reached, mainly because of the aversion politicians have to increasing the number of public employees due to our political climate. This will only be exacerbated by Andrew Cuomo laying off some 300 workers from DTF yesterday, many of whom were the tax auditors and tax technicians who were on teams searching for such fraud.

Until the entrenched mentality that tax fraud is simply a goal number to hit instead of acknowledging that it may go far beyond that goal number and resources are needed to continue to search it out, things will never change.

Posted by Wersackit | Report as abusive